We’ve all done it. Handed the iPad to our kids while waiting for food in a restaurant, put on a movie for a long drive, or let them play a game while we caught up on chores or much needed “me-time.” Some of us feel devastatingly guilty while others aren’t the least bit bothered at all. What’s all the fuss about anyway?
Many parents argue: I’m not hurting anyone. My child is happy, busy and even learning how to read and count! Technology is the future, and my kid is a natural with gadgets. Plus, I get some time for myself. It’s a win-win situation.
Except it’s not a win-win situation. While we can say there are benefits to gadget use, multiple sources and studies are showing the negative effects of its overuse on a child’s development. The temptation to plop them in front of a screen often stretches from a few minutes to a couple of hours.
Doctors, teachers and other child specialists are advising parents to stop using screens as a babysitting service, not only because "family time" is now being replaced with "tech time." But screen addiction can affect a child's physical, mental and socio-emotional development.
If you’re still not worried, here are some things to consider:
1. Prolonged gadget use affects the way a brain is developing. During the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Veteran teacher Sharon Baritugo, who has been working with 1- and 2-year olds for over 15 years observes, “Children who are exposed to gadgets early on lack the opportunities for social interaction that is crucial in a young child’s developing brain.”
Toddlers who choose screen time over play time with toys or other children are deprived of the chance to develop meaningful communication and higher order thinking skills. They need these to solve problems or think critically and creatively.
2. Problem behavior in school is sometimes linked to gadget use. Preschool teachers have noticed an increase in cases of delayed speech, short attention spans, high activity levels, less interest in active play, and difficulty in self-regulating among students who report daily gadget use of more than one hour.
Teacher Sharon points out, “With a gadget, instead of a real person to play with, young children do not learn how to express themselves, ask for their needs, and even have difficulty paying attention when they are spoken to.”
In my experience, there have been teachers who ask parents of hyperactive or speech delayed children to do a “screen diet.” Within weeks, they report a noticeable positive change in the children's behavior both at home and in school.
3. Motor skills are suffering as well. Gadgets may get our children to sit still. But it gives a false sense of prolonged attention and prevents children from engaging in movement activities.
Jing Suarez, a registered occupational therapist who has been working with children with special needs since 2002, reminds us, “There is a direct relationship between how the body moves and how the brain organizes all the other activities the body performs.”
Think about how doctors are encouraging parents to let their babies crawl. Findings show how crawling helps the brain control cognitive processes such as comprehension, concentration, and memory.
Suarez adds, “Physical movement, which is almost absent or very minimal when playing with gadgets, plays a crucial role in the development of a child’s overall muscle tone and muscle strength, which is needed for good posture and overall body control.”
By encouraging a sedentary lifestyle, we not only put our kids at risk for obesity, but we also put them at a disadvantage in developing gross and fine motor skills that are needed for writing, sports, and music.
4. Sleep is affected. In the Zero to Three's "5 Myths about Young Children and Screen Media," it states viewing TV within two hours of bedtime can make it harder for children to fall asleep.
In December 2016, a JAMA Pediatrics paper by Charles Czeisler and Theresa Shanahan found that the mere presence of a mobile device in the bedroom at bedtime aside from its use already increased the risk of inadequate sleep, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness the next day in children 6 to 19 years old.
Don’t forget the blue light emitted by screens, which Czeisler and Shannan described as “biologically potent,” and suppresses melatonin, a hormone that tells the brain to sleep. (To know more about the blue light, read this mom's story about her daughter's excessive gadget use here.)
“When it comes to affecting our eyesight,” Dr. Bernard Tinio, an ophthalmologist with a subspecialty in cornea and refractive surgery, tells us, “The most common misconception regarding gadgets and computers is it can cause refractive errors like nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. Most recent findings say that length of time on devices and computers are NOT related to increases in refractive mistakes and are instead more correlated with the lack of outdoor activities.”
But that doesn’t mean they can stare at screens too long. Dr. Tinio goes on to clarify, “Having said that, computer and gadget use could cause eye strain that may accumulate over time to a point where its symptoms, like headaches, eye pain, dry eyes, or blurring of vision, will affect productivity.”
So while gadget use might not be the culprit of poor eyesight, be warned, Dr. Tinio says, “Computer Vision Syndrome, although not fatal, is recognized as a major strain in any computer-related industry.” And if children are staring at screens without breaks in between, they can suffer these consequences, too.
5. There is a mental and psychological price. There is an increasing number of studies that discuss the mental and psychological effects of screen overuse. Linking technological overuse to aggression, anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, and even bipolar disorder. For example, a study by Mentzoni et al. in 2011 linked the problematic use of video games to lower life satisfaction and elevated levels of anxiety and depression.
Gadgets are not pure evil. They do have some educational and entertainment value. But parents need to teach their children to use them responsibly. Here are some ways we can help:
1. Choose wisely. Specify the gadgets you will let your children use. Pick programs, games, shows, and apps that have educational value.
2. Use the gadget together. Parents need to help young children process what’s happening on the screen. For older children, it’s important to know the content of the games or shows your child is playing with, so you can screen for and talk about themes on violence and sex.
3. Make the connection between the screen and real world. According to a report by Claire Lerner entitled, "Tips for Using Screen Media with Young Children," parents should try giving real-life experiences to things the child encounters in the screen. You should also talk about issues characters in shows or games are facing and relate them to the child’s own experiences.
4. Have rules. Get your children involved in planning the rules, which should be fair and reasonable. Inform the whole household and get their help in enforcing rules, even when you’re not around. Rules can include device types, time limits, sites/ games/ apps/ channels they can use, which rooms they can be used in, and where devices will be stored at night.
5. Have rules for parents, too. Parents should also have a set of rules to follow. By modeling good gadget behavior, you are also teaching your children about self-control and that they are the priority when you are home together.
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I started a "One Hour A Day" initiative in my school where we invited all the parents to allot an hour each day where all screens are shut off so families can enjoy each other’s company.
Children are beginning to complain that they have to compete with gadgets for their parents’ attention. “Promise me you won’t look at your phone while we play?” My daughter sweetly asks me while she sets up the pieces of a board game.
6. Replace screen time with fun thingsfor the family to do. Activities you choose to will depend on the age of your children, but some no-brainer ideas are dance-offs, board games, family sing-a-thons, story times, or getting into a sport. Active time (like swimming, biking, trips to the park) and even doing household chores (such as setting the table, preparing a meal, gardening, folding laundry) can be fun if you don’t forget to laugh.
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This is the perfect time to connect with your children – talk, share jokes, hug, tickle, play, and giggle. The benefits of family bonding are immense and best of all, there is no downside. Now, that’s what I call a win-win situation!
Barbara Server-Veloso has a Masters Degree from the University of the Philippines in Early Childhood Education. She has been teaching since 1993 and is known as Teacher Thumby in her preschool, Toddlers Unlimited, and Ms. Thumby in her grade school, Thinkers Unlimited (Alabang). She is also a partner in Spark Discovery Center (Jupiter Street, Makati) where she teaches the Baby and Me Class. She is also the mother of Lucas, 10, and Verena, 6. In her free time, she offers Essential Oils 101 talks for mothers and teachers interested in healthy, natural lifestyles.